How Mic.com exploited social justice for clicks, and then abandoned a staff that believed in it.

Mic’s drop

How Mic.com exploited social justice for clicks, and then abandoned a staff that believed in it.

For about five years, Mic.com was a place where readers could go to get moral clarity. In the Mic universe, heroes fought for equality against villains who tried to take it away. Every day, there was someone, like plus-size model Ashley Graham, to cheer for, and someone else, like manspreaders, to excoriate. Kim Kardashian annihilated slut shamers, George Takei clapped back at transphobes. “In a Single Tweet, One Man Beautifully Destroys the Hypocrisy of Anti-Muslim Bigotry.” “This Brave Woman's Horrifying Photo Has Become a Viral Rallying Cry Against Sexual Harassment.” “Young Conservative Tries to Mansplain Hijab in Viral Olympic Photo, Gets It All Wrong.” “The Problematic Disney Body Image Trend We're Not Talking About.” “The Very Problematic Reason This Woman Is Taking a Stand Against Leggings.”

The site had an unfiltered voice that spoke on behalf of marginalized individuals. Breitbart called it “SJW Central.” “I think a lot of people in today’s day and age want to know, ‘What are we supposed to be outraged about?’” a former Mic staffer who left the site earlier this year told The Outline. “It seemed as if we were trying to position ourselves as, ‘We are the definition of woke, and this is how you break down this narrative or fight the mainstream.’”

But after laying off 25 staffers last week, Mic has a new mandate: pivoting to video. According to a memo that was sent to staff, the site’s new mission is “to make Mic the leader in visual journalism.”

In retrospect, it looks like Mic’s commitment to social justice was never that deep — which surprised and disappointed many of the young ideologues who went to work there. (The Outline spoke to 17 current and former staffers who requested anonymity due to nondisclosure agreements.) Mic chanced upon the social justice narrative, discovered it was Facebook gold, and mined away. Now the quarry is nearly dry.

Mic is far from the only website to hack social justice-themed outrage, although it was one of the earliest and most prominent.

The site started in 2010 as PolicyMic, an evenhanded, forgettable politics website where unpaid contributors posted commentary that could be upvoted by other site members. The PolicyMic origin story was that Chris Altchek, a Goldman Sachs banker who leaned conservative, was always debating his friend Jake Horowitz, a foreign policy columnist for Change.org who leaned liberal. The two had fierce debates about the issues of the day, and they wanted to convert that spirit into a website “to help our generation talk about the issues that really matter,” Horowitz told The New York Observer. The two met in jazz band at the New York prep school Horace Mann; they started the site when they were 23, each having raised $75,000. Altchek contributed his Goldman bonus.

In its early days, the site published left-leaning stories alongside right-leaning takes like, “Is There a Media Bias Against Ron Paul?” and “The One Chart That Shows Why Even Unions Are Abandoning Obamacare.” It also trafficked in standard content farm fare like “The 25 Greatest Things About Christmas.” The site also started to develop an inertia around a certain type of story: simple, emotional social justice narratives. The success of personal, identity-driven essays like “5 Powerful Reasons I'm a (Male) Feminist,” “An Open Letter to the Pope From a Gay Man,” and “An Open Letter to Abercrombie and Fitch from a Formerly Homeless Kid” inspired Mic to launch an “Identities” section in October 2013 “dedicated to examining the intersections of sexuality, gender, class and race in politics and culture for the millennial generation.” These stories got traction on Facebook, so Mic replicated them, attracting more social justice readers as well as more social justice writers, who then wrote more social justice stories. “Mic realized earlier than most places that they could commodify people’s feelings about race and gender," was the view of one early staffer who has since left.

By the fall of 2013, PolicyMic had grown considerably, publishing between 50 and 100 stories a day from its network of 2,500 writers supervised by a 20-person in-house editorial team. The site claimed to have nine million unique visitors a month, fueled by Facebook shares, and raised $3 million in venture capital funding. The next year, it reported 20 million unique visitors, raised another $10 million in venture capital funding, and rebranded as just “Mic.” A year later, it was up to 30 million unique visitors and raised another $17 million. According to former employees, more than 70 percent of the site’s traffic came from Facebook during this period.

This Facebook-driven success was no accident. Every time Mic had a hit, it would distill that success into a formula and then replicate it until it was dead. Successful “frameworks,” or headlines, that went through this process included “Science Proves TK,” “In One Perfect Tweet TK,” “TK Reveals the One Brutal Truth About TK,” and “TK Celebrity Just Said TK Thing About TK Issue. Here’s why that’s important.” At one point, according to an early staffer who has since left, news writers had to follow a formula with bolded sections, which ensured their stories didn’t leave readers with any questions: The intro. The problem. The context. The takeaway.

From left, Mic.com co-founders Chris Altchek and Jake Horowitz at the Mic50 Awards in June 2015.

From left, Mic.com co-founders Chris Altchek and Jake Horowitz at the Mic50 Awards in June 2015.

Mic’s unapologetic advocacy attracted a smart, driven staff, including feminist personality Elizabeth Plank, now at Vox; Darnell Moore, an activist and writer now at Cassius and Feminist Life; reporter Antonia Hylton, now at Vice News Tonight, and writer Zak Cheney Rice, who still works for the site. They and other members of the newsroom championed women’s reproductive rights, respect for people with disabilities, and equal treatment for the poor and people of color. Mic was one of the first outlets to recognize the rise of Bernie Sanders. It had boots on the ground during Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson. It tracks the murders of transgender people, a subject that has been largely overlooked by the mainstream press. In 2015, it landed a sit-down interview with Barack Obama.

In contrast to their staff, Horowitz and Altchek seemed to embrace the idea of being an activist website without really understanding the issues, based on anecdotes about their conduct internally.

“We were run by people who did not believe the things that their staffers were hired to write about and their staffers truly believed in.”
A former Mic staffer who wrote about social justice issues

In some communications, Horowitz and Altchek emerged as tone-deaf to the diverse staff they had cultivated. In 2015, when a TV news reporter and a cameraman were fatally shot in Virginia during a live broadcast, Horowitz and Altchek ordered pizza for the office and sent an email to staff letting them know that they could take time off if they felt traumatized by the news. In response, a group of employees of color wrote an email pointing out the fact that the site frequently covered shootings of black people by police and those writers had never been offered pizza or a personal day.

The leadership was excited about elevating underrepresented communities, but employees said that Mic had become a content factory. The site had “no plan” for a Trump win on election night, multiple former employees told me, and improvised by pulling queer people and people of color out of the newsroom, putting them in front of a camera, and having them talk about how they felt. In another instance, a former staffer told me about how Horowitz, who served as editor in chief of the site until mid-2015 and is now editor at large, once interrupted a reporter pitching a video about a woman building rooftop gardens in New Orleans: “‘But, is she black? Is she black?’" the former staffer recalled Horowitz asking, “as if the story would be less impactful had the woman doing the work been white or Hispanic or Martian.” When the site was pushing into original comedy, Altchek told multiple staffers that he wanted to make “the next Chappelle Show, except it’s hosted by a trans woman of color.” Multiple former employees brought up the time Altchek introduced a video about the feminist #FreeTheNipple movement at a large staff gathering with a joke implying that the video still would have been excellent even if it hadn’t included boobs: “Titties aside,” he said, it was a great piece.

Altchek’s biggest misstep, however, was a get-out-the-vote effort called #69TheVote, which launched in late 2016. The conceit was that, while 69 million baby boomers and 69 million millennials are eligible to vote, only the former actually do so. “Boomers have always been on top,” the voiceover in the announcement video says. “Sometimes it seems like they're afraid to try new positions. But we're ready to go down on history” — a voice interrupts — “ahem, in history” — “oh right….” The video was widely disavowed by staff members and lambasted by The Washington Post, Gawker, Vice, and others.

“It was something that made the entire editorial staff sigh and put their head in their hands,” said one former staffer who covered social justice issues. “I remember one staffer who covered voting rights issues, who was like, ‘we are still writing today about the disenfranchisement of large swaths of Americans, and our site is making sex jokes about voting?’ To me, that just demonstrates the hypocrisy that was sort of layered throughout the organization. We were run by people who did not believe the things that their staffers were hired to write about and their staffers truly believed in.”

The video for Mic’s #69theVote campaign.

Furthermore, Mic’s fixation on traffic bothered reporters, who were sick of being forced into reductive headlines and catering to an echo chamber while being told they were changing the world. “It’s like they know the right things to tell their staff, but at a certain point it starts to feel like gaslighting in the office,” said the former staffer who covered social justice issues. “I didn’t just want to know what my path forward was, I didn’t just want a raise. I wanted someone to stop bullshitting me. To tell me I was selling out and I was just writing for clicks, that would be one thing. But there was this ethos of, ‘you are doing important work. You are making a difference,’ when I wasn’t.”

According to Crunchbase, which tracks venture capital investment, Mic has raised $59.5 million from investors in total. Mic was reportedly in acquisition talks with Twitter back in 2014 when the company had raised only $10 million. Twitter floated a price of $90 million, but Mic was not interested, according to Business Insider. If Mic could get a buyer to offer the same multiple of capital raised again, it would be worth $535 million. (Altchek told The Wall Street Journal the company’s valuation was in the “mid hundreds of millions” in April.) Mic has 65 million unique visitors across platforms, the company told me, which would shake out to just over $8 per visitor.

For publishers, Facebook has been the blessing that turned out to be a curse. The social network started driving unprecedented amounts of traffic to major publishers like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post around 2013. In 2015 it overtook Google as the biggest source of traffic. Some publishers, like Elite Daily and Upworthy, staked their entire existence on Facebook, only to watch numbers traffic tumble when the company tweaked its News Feed algorithm.

Mic started riding the Facebook wave early in 2012. Individual stories kept going viral, pulling in 2 million, 3 million, 5 million unique visitors per piece. Former staffers described the viral power of Mic’s stories as a fluke, something they’d never witnessed before and have never seen again. Every month brought a new record, former staffers told me. It felt like Mic was unstoppable — but it was not to last. In August 2015, Mic’s Facebook traffic dropped dramatically, former staffers said. This happened every so often; traffic would dip, the audience and editorial teams would adjust a bunch of levers, and the crisis would blow over. This time was different, possibly due to changes made by Facebook that included a penalty for clickbait, as indicated by readers clicking on a story but not spending much time with it.

Mic had already exhausted its outrage vocabulary by the time Trump’s election supercharged civil rights violations

Mic, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, had already hired Bleacher Report veteran Michael Cahill in May 2015 as its director of search engine optimization. His task was to translate Mic’s Facebook optimization process to Google. This meant analyzing search trends in order to generate key phrases — everything from “What time is the convention” and “Watch Trump’s speech live” to “How to pick up women” — and assigning those key phrases to a staff of SEO writers, who then reverse-engineered stories around them. “He starts building this little team. They’re off in their own world. Garbage shit. Typos everywhere. ‘Keyword keyword 2017 colon how when where why.’ These poor kids are writing like ten of these a day,” said the former staffer who left in late 2016. “That strategy just kind of overtook the entire newsroom. The desk editors would have weekly meetings with his little lackey… they would have a spreadsheet of like 50 different story ideas that had a bunch of keywords in them, and we had to sit down and assign them to writers together.”

Cahill’s suggestions belied his ignorance of reporting and lack of sensitivity to social issues, according to former staffers. Cahill wanted to replicate the success of New York magazine’s cover story with photos of women who had accused Bill Cosby of rape, said the staffer who covered social justice issues, and suggested they “do a similar roundup” with survivors of sexual assault. “‘Maybe campus rape, maybe not...whatever! Just find rape victims and get them to share their stories!’” the staffer recalled in an email, mocking the tone. “I know it wasn't intended to be so… gross. But to me it demonstrated such a complete lack of understanding of how sensitive those stories are, how difficult it is to find dozens of victims willing to go on the record about the trauma they've experienced, the trust a writer has to earn, not to mention the horror of how many Cosby accusers there were… all of it. It showed me he didn't get how any of the work the reporters were doing was done, or that the reason NYMag's story did well had nothing to do with that ‘story template’ playing well.”

While Cahill was remaking the site in Google’s image, Mic hired NPR News Executive Editor Madhulika Sikka to shore up its journalism cred. Sikka was brought in with the hope that serious journalism could help free Mic from its dependence on Facebook — and that her resume could offset the fact that former news director Jared Keller and former managing editor of news Chris Miles were both found to have plagiarized parts of stories. Seven months later, Sikka was out, telling Ad Age that the job “wasn't quite the right fit for me.” Meanwhile, Cahill was promoted to managing editor of editorial operations in January 2016 and then VP of content in June 2016, according to his LinkedIn profile.

During these experiments, Mic continued to bait Facebook readers into getting worked up over everything: Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie, a high school teacher in Oregon who doesn’t believe in rape culture, people with bad opinions on Thought Catalog, people using bad hashtags, and Zazzle.com. “Mic trafficked in outrage culture,” a former staffer who left in 2017 said. “A lot of the videos that we would publish would be like, ‘Here is this racist person doing a racist thing in this nondescript southern city somewhere.’ There wouldn’t be any reporting or story around it, just, ‘Look at this person being racist, wow what a terrible racist.’” Mic had already exhausted its outrage vocabulary by the time Trump’s election supercharged civil rights violations.

“It ratchets everything up to 11, to a point where if everything is an outrage, nothing is an outrage,” the staffer who left in 2017 said. “Everything is the biggest deal in the world because you’re trying to create traffic, and it desensitizes us to what are actually huge breaks in social and political norms.”

The over-the-top rhetoric made Mic a favorite of the alt-right, which held it up as the paragon of leftist myopia. Its YouTube videos got so many bilious comments that Mic disabled them. “Mic is kind of like a caricature of what you would think of a millennial leftist site that’s kind of stupid and doesn’t know any better,” said one former employee who left in late 2016. One recent story, about a Portland burrito cart opened by two white girls who “bragged about stealing tortilla recipes from Mexico to start a business,” was hate-reblogged across the conservative blogosphere even though the piece, written by Jamilah King, was short and relatively even-handed. An editor’s note says the verb in the headline was changed from stealing to bringing back in order to “better reflect the overall tone of the piece.”

After November 8, some of Mic’s staffers questioned whether the site had contributed to the political divisiveness, lobotomizing of the media, and complacency on the left that post-election thinkpieces cited as factors in Hillary Clinton’s fall and Donald Trump’s triumph. “It kills me when I think about the contribution of liberal media in what happened in the election,” said a former employee who was with the company until this year. “When I think about the role Mic played in growing that sentiment of moral outrage — and it then bleeding into publications that you think should have risen above it — it doesn’t feel good.”

Multiple staffers told me they were excited to go work at Mic because it was giving a voice to underrepresented communities, including trans people, disabled people, and people of color. But it’s clear from both the list of laid-off writers and the site itself that Mic is moving away from advocacy. Its headlines now resemble the neutrality of traditional outlets. The pieces that do take a stand are labeled “opinion.”

Mic says this is because it is raising its journalistic standards. It brought in Kerry Lauerman, formerly of Salon, The Dodo, and The Washington Post, as executive news editor in October. Lauerman has been pushing for more moderate coverage, according to former employees who worked with him, and steering them away from certain social justice topics he deemed “too niche.” Cahill is no longer at the company, and Mic seems to be moving away from his brand of SEO-powered content.

“Social justice is among our top four beats, along with gender issues in policy, politics and grassroots movements,” a company spokeswoman said in an email. The site’s channels, including Slay (feminism) and The Movement (grassroots racial justice), will remain in place.

“It kills me when I think about the contribution of liberal media in what happened in the election.”
A Mic employee who left earlier this year

Former employees say they have heard this before. Mic has attempted to reinvent itself as “real journalism” multiple times, they said, only to get spooked when traffic dropped and return to the low-hanging fruit.

It’s unclear what type of video Mic will do next. The company has been producing video stories from footage sourced from social media and wire services and then overlaid with text, a format that is becoming widely popular because it’s fast, cheap, and gets lots of views. After former VEVO Chief of Revenue Jonathan Carson joined Mic as president in April, the company had a large staff meeting where he took questions. One employee asked Carson who of Mic’s competitors he thought was doing good video; Carson couldn’t answer. Instead, he said, to the recollection of an employee who was there: “I’m in love with the concept of media. I don’t watch any show or outlet consistently, I watch one episode of every TV show to see what’s out there.” Rather than a video visionary, staffers I spoke to remembered him for cutting costs.

Editor’s note: Three employees of The Outline previously worked at Mic. They had no involvement in this article.

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